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The Last Vacation

What stays close to my heart are the ordinary moments

My legs were numb, and I needed a bathroom. Bad. Sister was cranky, Dad wasn’t speaking, and Mom just stared. A four-hour August road trip on the ever-shrinking seat of a 1969 pickup will do that to you. But all of that changed at the Yegua ranger station. The whole family shifted gears driving past those park gates. Adrenaline flowed, jokes were cracked and giddy laughter broke out faster than a case of shingles. Our annual last vacation of the year at Lake Somerville had begun.

This was the big yearly event, a full seven days at Lake Somerville’s Yegua Creek Park. Our favorite campsite was nestled at the edge of a sand-bottomed cove midway between the boat ramps and public restrooms. Black-barked oaks protected the campsite with thick, sturdy limbs just right for hanging lanterns and clotheslines. In their shade, we’d hammer stakes, rattle tent poles and maybe do a bit of cussing before the glorious sight of our upright, 9-foot-by-12-foot Wenzel tent, our castle, announced our official arrival.

That green and gold Wenzel at the Yegua campsite was a mecca for kinfolk. Throughout the week, relatives would invade our camp in drizzles and droves. They’d come from all over Texas, some staying for hours and others for days. Those oak trees shaded millionaire and hog farmer alike. Grandma Donna, with her new Lincoln, loaded pistol and fishing pole, was always the first to come and the last to leave.

No matter what horde of kin occupied our camp, everyone respected the solemn magic of the Yegua mornings. Soft voices and reverential whispers accompanied breakfasts of gritty eggs and burned potatoes as a rising sun warmed the lake mist. Reverence, however, was no match for hormones and adrenaline. When the mist disappeared, the quiet went with it, making way for screaming outboard motorboats that rocketed skis and catapulted wakeboards. There was rafting and marathon swimming with no one allowed to quit until tired arms couldn’t be lifted. Then it was a race to the barbecue or fish fry or wiener roast with lots of juicy, sweet watermelon to follow.

Everyone was included on the shoulder-to-shoulder fishing trips in the afternoons. It was quite the task to keep the lines of the young and the old rebaited and untangled while dodging Grandma’s roundhouse casts.

Thunderstorms were about the only thing that could slow the day’s busyness, and they were packed with excitement. Their howling winds churned the lake into a malevolent black froth while lightning ripped and sizzled across the sky and thunder exploded with ear-shattering crashes. Thunderstorms were more than a match for hormones and adrenaline.

As fantastic as the days were, the nights were even better. Darkness on the lake was a time for dramatic moments like when Dad was trapped in the Wenzel by a nosy skunk or Grandma threatened to shoot a singing camper. That was dramatic stuff, but it was nothing compared to the drama of night fishing. Dad, Grandma and I were serious about it. More than once, a night’s worth of fillets provided a batter-fried main course for the entire camp and sometimes the adjacent camps as well.

Those wonderful night sounds of chanting insects, hissing lanterns and the splish and splop of small fish and frogs served as a backdrop for many an argument over how to pronounce Yegua (it’s pronounced YAY-wa). There was even more speculation on what it meant. Everybody had an opinion, but no one ever correctly explained that yegua means mare in Spanish.

There were lots of wonderfully dramatic moments crammed into our last vacations. I’m sure lots of families had even greater adventures than ours. But 30-something years later, what stays close to my heart are the ordinary moments like Dad’s obstinate packing and repacking until everything was just right, the cool touch of Mom’s hand on a blistered shoulder or the intimate closeness of a long truck ride.

It was one of those unremarkable August moments, at the sunburned end of the magic and the mosquitoes, that our last vacation actually became our last vacation. Somehow, like Grandma and Dad, they just slipped away. I’m not sure how an annual ritual that was every bit as solid and anticipated as Christmas was replaced by short trips and quick getaways, but it was. Maybe it’s time that I learned to pack something more than a three-suiter and a carry-on. Maybe it’s time for another “last” vacation.

The late Harry Clifford, who lived in Pflugerville, had decided after spending many years in the international oil industry to try his hand at writing.